Attorney General John Ashcroft is angry at how long it is taking for Congress to pass the anti-terrorism bill known as the PATRIOT (Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act. Ashcroft ought to be angrier about the fact that the House bill may not last through the end of today's investigations -- several provisions would sunset on Dec. 31, 2003.
A two-year limit sends the wrong message to Osama bin Laden.
Washington knows better. The world now knows that bin Laden sent operatives to go after U.S. troops deployed on a humanitarian mission to Somalia in 1992. After an attack that left 18 soldiers dead, President Clinton recalled the mission.
Bin Laden later told Time magazine that Clinton's retreat changed how he and his followers saw the United States: "The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat. ... After a few blows, they forgot about (the U.S. role as leader of the New World Order) and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat."
Bin Laden's dismissal of American will shows why it's wrong for Congress to pass a bill that hints that Americans aren't likely to stick with the program for the long haul.
The Department of Justice is aware of the problem. "We are concerned about it because terrorism is not something that will end when the sunset rules end, " said a department official.
Last week, when Ashcroft testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked him what he thought of her idea, a five-year sunset -- a less egregious bad idea. Ashcroft still nixed it.
I should note here that at least the House Judiciary Committee is moving with its bill, and was deliberating on it as of this writing. In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is willing to take weeks or months to pass a bill.
Jeff Lungren, spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, said of the two-year sunset: "This was a key compromise that allowed us to move the bill forward and get a lot of bipartisan support on this. Certainly, my boss is not enthralled with the sunset provision."
Lungren explained that some members wanted the two-year limit because the bill contains "new tools" for law enforcement, including the ability for a wiretap authorization to "rove" with a person from land line to cell phone.
He's right about the new rules, but the answer is for lawmakers to negotiate a bill that enables the government to get the bad guys, without giving the feds so much authority that they can turn into bad guys. Democrats and Republican members were right to fight some of the measures in the early versions of the administration's bill.
The worst of it is that the sunset is something of a ruse. Lawmakers say that they included a sunset so that if the new laws are abused, they can more easily repeal them. Fact is, the sunset exists so that they can more easily pass these laws.
"Some of the civil libertarians were arguing for a sunset, and I don't know why they did that," said Jerry Berman of the civil libertarian Center for Democracy and Technology. "In my view, nothing ever sunsets."
He's right. In two years, very few politicians would want to vote to revoke laws that are helping the FBI and other agencies arrest terrorists. Whatever ends up in this bill, lawmakers no doubt will reapprove automatically.
The whole world is watching. Will Americans show they have the stomach to fight the war on terrorism without flinching? Other countries will take, or not take, a stand with America based on our show of resolve.
So why send the wrong message?